So You Think You Can Run

It should be natural. Put one foot in front of the other and go. It’s not that complicated, right?

I guess for most people this is true. And honestly, my form probably wouldn’t matter too much if I was running shorter distances, but the marathon distance has been humbling for me in many respects, and this may be the latest lesson. Upon reviewing my most recent marathon photos, it’s easily noted that they reveal more than just the unlikely occurrence of a hobbit shuffling down the streets of Ventura, they also highlight a few issues. But I jump ahead. Let’s dial it back.

“You should be like a deer skipping across a frozen pond.”

Back in the mid-90s, my track coach gave our running group this imagery in response to questions regarding our running form. The aspiration to be this graceful creature has always stuck with me, even though my form consistently shouted that I was more likely to bust through the ice and drown. One can dream, right?

After my fourth marathon in 2012, I saw my race photo and what jumped out at me — in addition to my ginormous head — was my inefficient arm swing and how I pulled my arms across my body. Alas, it would turn out to be a problem much lower that was hindering me.

Post-marathon I went to see someone that my FMC had used for gait analysis. He filmed me on the treadmill in my regular easy running form, and then we watched the video together. He then pointed out the adjustments to be made and watched me run in the better running form to make sure that I understood his instructions. Honestly, the evaluator didn’t have to tell me– much less show me – what needed improvement. You could hear it. “THUMP, THUMP, THUMP.” Yup, I’m more like a Clydesdale lumbering across the plains than that light-footed deer my track coach mentioned. Surprisingly, though, he did say my form was mostly fine and that it was just a minor adjustment that needed to be made: shifting more to a midfoot strike. I guess I’m a heel striker, and sure enough, when we did some practice running employing the midfoot strike, I sounded more like that elegant deer.

I totally thought this would be an easy thing to do, especially since I planned to do it incrementally, but every time I tried to switch my foot strike, my calves would get jacked up. This was a big issue in 2012 as this was my first year of really committing to training for the marathon distance, and I suffered many calf strains even before this attempt at form adjustment. In fact, later that year I had to take six weeks off due to Achilles tendonitis. So even though every now and again I’d make an attempt at changing my footstrike, I pretty much put it on the backburner. All I wanted was to not have tight calves and stop wearing compression socks all the time.

Fast forward to this year’s Mountains 2 Beach Marathon. During the marathon, our pace leader Tammy turned back to me and told me that my stride was too heavy, and that if I didn’t lighten it up, I’d pay for it later. Now keep in mind, there were about twenty people in our pace group, along with a hundred or so marathoners in our near vicinity as we’re charging down the road at a good clip, and she could hear my footstrike! You guys, I don’t weight that much – how am I making so much noise?!?

So once again, during the first week of the Ventura Marathon training cycle this summer, I attempted to change to a midfoot strike at like intervals of .10 of a mile for each, or every other, mile. My calves immediately tightened up, and I got scared and stopped asap. I did not want to stop the momentum of a marathon PR and no post-marathon injury. I just wanted to keep training. Later, midfoot strike.

Now we’re here.

On my second session with Trainer – before I got the no-run directive from ART doctor – we met at the track, so he could watch me run for a bit. He asked me to do a warm-up jog around the football field…he later told me that he thought I was going to fall over. I mean, he’s not totally out-of-bounds for thinking that. After all, I did fall on a training run and during the M2B marathon and still have a nasty little scar to bear witness to it.

So at the track we did a lot of warm-up drills, which were basically to get me focused on being light on my feet and driving my knees upwards. In addition, in most drills we do, Trainer reminds me to keep my arms in tight, moving front and back, and at 90 degree angles. I guess the hope is to avoid this.

The smile stays, but the arm swing needs some work.
The smile stays, but the arm swing needs some work.

Finally after all this foreplay, we got to the main event. We took all the technique I worked on during our warm-up drills out onto the track: proper arm swing, knees up, and light feet. In fact, he wanted me to exaggerate lifting my knees up, so I could get used to it. The actual track workout was a brief 8 x 200 with him shouting out any corrections. Here’s a video of one of the later 200s. Remember, the form is a little exaggerated.

I had hoped to see a video of my initial warm-up jog (i.e., the “before” my form adjustment), but it was missing from his phone. I suspect his phone rejected it: “WTF is that?!” Despite the correction, it’s obvious I’m still not a deer skipping across the pond. In fact, my husband saw the video and said I looked injured…I am – are you happy?! However, believe it or not, it is an improvement. Since I don’t have a “before” video, this photo from the Ventura Marathon will have to do. Knees not as high, a little more of a heel strike, and a forward lean that hints at the possibility of the runner falling down.

During the later stages of the marathon so it’s not always this bad.

During one of the later 200s, Trainer said I could relax my form a little and not drive my knees up as high. When I finished that 200, he told me I wasn’t ready yet and that I had slipped back into some bad habits when I relaxed. Here’s the interesting thing: He didn’t have to tell me. My butt had immediately started to hurt when I went back into bad form. On all the 200s that I ran with good – albeit exaggerated – form, my butt never hurt. Upon more research, I read some articles that stated that one way of preventing/treating piriformis syndrome is to shift to a midfoot strike. Now, Trainer never actually uses these words, and maybe that’s good because my previous attempts at switching to a midfoot strike have freaked me out. He just focuses on lightness and keeping my knees up. For some reason, my brain can process this easier.

Of course my calves were jacked up afterwards, but I think the overall strengthening work we’re doing will help address that. Ultimately, he said I just have to work through it. “Luckily” I don’t have an upcoming race, much less a marathon, so I have the time and willingness to focus on this. For now.

I’m not sure where this leaves me. The idea of adjusting my form at the age of 48 is a bit daunting. The idea of trying to run like this for 26.2 miles is fucking overwhelming. For now, I’m just taking it a workout at a time and going along with the process. I feel stronger despite the fact that I’m injured, and even if I take away only a fraction of what I’ve been learning, I think it will benefit my overall training.

So that’s the running update.

Hope everyone has a great running week!

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